The Mental Acrobatics of Motherhood and Career
Words by Katie Wendorff
Staring into a mirror image of my brown eyes, we are both wide awake. The room is illuminated only by the lavender glow of a night light. It is midnight so we should be asleep; her dreaming of playing and laughing with friends outside at preschool. I should be preparing for a presentation at work. Tomorrow, my playground will be a boardroom with formal suits and slides filled with numbers. Laying next to my daughter in her toddler bed, I get anxious thinking about it.
As I mentally attempt to will my three-year-old to sleep, my usual mental dialogue begins as if on cue. Is this worth it? Am I failing in both places? I did not get done everything I needed or intended to in preparation. I feel guilty knowing my coworkers probably stayed late. Or they are in front of their computers right now at this very moment putting the final touches on their work. My mind pauses on all the ways my coworkers have outdone me. My recent lack of sleep and absence logging late night hours is not obvious to them, but I know.
Eventually my internal thoughts spin down a different rabbit hole. Does my daughter need more of me than she is getting right now? She has not slept or gone to bed at a normal time on her own in weeks. Last night’s Google search (I scoured the Internet for tips on getting a toddler to sleep) suggested my daughter likely was longing for increased parental quality time and attention. Damn Google! I am exhausted.
Growing up in the Midwest during the eighties, my mother stayed home most of the time with my brother and me. It never occurred to me there was any other way because most of my friends’ mothers also stayed home. Yet during that time, working mothers were increasing in number. As I reflect on my childhood, I do not remember dreaming of staying home, working, or even becoming a mother. The only career I recall pondering was in third grade when my class outlined each other on a large piece of white paper drawing ourselves into an occupation we wanted to be when we grew up. I chose to draw myself as a life-sized version of a meteorologist with a pink skirt suit pointing at a colorful weather map.
I also remember stationery given to me by my dad with “Katie Incorporated” across the top and my full name, middle initial included, listed as the President below. I loved the weight and texture of the light gray stationery with magenta font. It represented possibility and importance, which subtly illustrated a reoccurring theme in my upbringing. While career aspirations were not an active part of conversations, I knew deep down anything was possible. I did not see traditional roles and responsibilities as barrier to my future.
Eventually, I began college in pre-med courses only to end up a business major when I discovered my love for healthcare did not equate to a passion for organic chemistry. As I finished business school, I landed in finance finding my way into a business career, not because I had knowingly set aspirations as a child to be a business lady with a pink suit or have “President” in my title. In a roundabout way, I found myself in a career where I enjoyed working hard, earning my own paycheck, and navigating the corporate ladder. There was always something to learn or a problem to solve and I loved it.
Reflecting on my upbringing, education, and beginning of my career, there was no clear template for a woman in business. Similarly there was no recipe for motherhood as a working woman. I became a mother shortly after turning 30, blindsided by my love for my child. Balance was not a thing before motherhood. I had always poured all my energy into my career, but now there was this little person who also needed me. I had no idea what it looked like to be a working mother balancing the demands of my job with the needs of a child.
In 2019, women make up close to half of the U.S. workplace. 70% of mothers with children younger than 18 work and over 75% are employed full-time (1). As a result, there is a growing number of women defining what working and motherhood look like together. Furthermore, it is becoming a more normal dilemma for both mothers and fathers to weigh career ambitions with raising a family. Yet it is evident women face greater pressure to quit their corporate roles to stay home. Or we may not have the option to exit the workplace, as our income is critical to support our families. In either situation, a natural tension of expectations lures us into questioning our decisions or contributions. We do not want to fail at any of the roles we fulfill, but at times it can feel like one or the other is always losing.
Personally, I often wonder how I am depriving my children by being a working mother. I find great satisfaction in my work. It is important to me to use my talents in a meaningful way. During my first maternity leave, I realized quickly my aptitudes could not be satisfied in staying home. However, the thought has crossed my mind if I am selfish to seek fulfillment outside of the home. Despite the increasing number of working mothers alongside me in corporate America, I am not free from the burden of wondering if I am making the right decision when faced with a parenting hurdle, such as a sleepless child.
Seven and a half years into parenthood, there are many days where I do not have it figured out. I have also learned that if anyone tells you they have mastered parenthood, they are not telling you the truth! So when I look at my kids and wonder if they are getting enough of me or even the best of me, I can’t honestly say I know. I put a lot of pressure on myself to uphold perceptions I have about what a good and present mother looks like. I have post-its and phone reminders to help me keep track of dance and soccer sign up, field trips and class projects, and play dates or birthday parties so they do not miss out on anything. They are right next to my reminders of a project deadline or a major presentation at work. I can only do my best and understand no situation, person, or family is perfect.
Back in bed, my daughter’s eyes finally get heavy with sleep. With one more glance, she whispers, “Mommy, I love you so much,” before falling asleep. My heart sighs savoring the moment. And I realize, working or not, the time will too quickly pass. I must give myself grace. Tomorrow will be fine. Will I knock it out of the park? Probably not, but it will be good enough. And regardless, nothing compares to this moment with my daughter.
(1) Department of Labor Stats, https://blog.dol.gov/2017/03/01/12-stats-about-working-women.
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About the Author:
Katie Wendorff grew up in the Midwest embracing all four seasons to their fullest; ice skating or floating on a lake. She resides in Minnesota with her husband, two kids ages 7 and 3, and her dog. Katie has worked in corporate America for close to two decades, most recently leading business strategy at a local Fortune 10 healthcare company. Balancing corporate life with young children inspired her passion for helping other working mothers as she experiences the dilemma firsthand daily.